Books!

Dec. 8th, 2014 05:05 pm
decemberthirty: (tree swallow)
I have quite a few books I want to talk about!

Selected Stories by Katherine Mansfield:
I first encountered Katherine Mansfield in grad school, when we read her long story "At the Bay" in a novella workshop I took. I was Mansfield's coolness, by her light touch, by the ease with which she shifted about among an array of perspectives, by the way she built a story out of tiny, ordinary moments somehow turned it into much more than the sum of its parts. Now that I've read more of her fiction, I can say that these qualities are shared by all of her best stories, and the ones that don't succeed are the ones where she loses her lightness or the effortless mobility of perspective. I found some of the stories in this collection to be quite flat, but those that are good are very very good. The best stories of all were the group about the Burrells, the family in "At the Bay."

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel:
What an uneven collection! There were a few standout stories that I loved (the title story, "The Heart Fails Without Warning," and "How Shall I Know You?"), but the rest were either underdeveloped or marred by pat endings. Reading this collection gives the impression that Mantel is much better at starting stories than at finishing--almost every piece here had a promising premise and atmospheric beginning, but most of them fizzled by the time they were over. Although I was sometimes frustrated by Mantel's prose in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, in general I found it more interesting than the style in these stories.

The Matisse Stories by A.S. Byatt:
Wonderful! A beautiful tiny gem of a book. This book contains only three stories (longish stories, but still), yet it feels very rich and full. And pleasurable! I luxuriated in Byatt's descriptive writing. The characters all felt natural and believable, and though there was considerable thought put into themes and connections, it didn't impinge on the stories' need, first, and foremost, to be good stories. (Hilary Mantel could learn a thing or two.) As much as I admire Byatt as a novelist, I'm beginning to think I might like her even more as a short story writer.

Our Lady of the Flowers by Jean Genet:
I've just started this after having it on my shelf for quite some time. I confess that I'm reading it now more out of sense of mingled curiosity and obligation (if one is going to claim to be knowledgeable about queer literature, one must read Genet!) than out of a deep desire. So far all I can say is that it's a strange book, with very flowery prose applied to base acts, and an unusual relationship between the narrator, the author, and the text.... I am fifty or sixty pages into the book, and still feel like I don't quite have a handle on it yet. We shall see.
decemberthirty: (Default)
I watched at the window; I watched at the creek. A new wind lifted the hair on my arms. The cold light was coming and going between oversized, careening clouds; patches of blue, like a ragged flock of protean birds, shifted and stretched, flapping and racing from one end of the sky of the other. Despite the wind, the air was moist; I smelled the rich vapor of loam around my face and wondered again why all that death--all those rotten leaves that one layer down are black sops roped in white webs of mold, all those millions of dead summer insects--didn't smell worse. When the wind quickened, a stranger, more subtle scent leaked from beyond the mountains, a disquieting fragrance of wet bark, salt marsh, and mud flat.

I lay in bed last night and read Annie Dillard on the coming of fall, and it felt profoundly appropriate. Though we still have temperatures that reach the mid-70s, the season has unmistakably changed. My mother gave me apples at Lake Ontario last weekend, and this weekend I baked an apple crisp with cinnamon and pecans. And then, because I had strawberries that were at the end of their life, I baked strawberry muffins. It was lovely to have the oven on and warm smells filling the apartment. And it was lovely to have tea and a strawberry muffin for breakfast this morning. I will have to begin feeding the birds again soon.
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I read "The Dead" last week for the first time in several years. It was more wonderful than I had anticipated to return to this story which is so beautiful and familiar in all of its particulars: Freddy Malins turning up screwed at the party; Aunt Kate and Aunt Julia bustling on the stairs; Gabriel being called a West Briton by Molly Ivors; and then Gretta on the stairs, listening to the faint music that reminds her of Michael Furey... I was overcome with emotion reading the end of the story, much more than I had been the first time I read it, and I wondered if this story might actually be Joyce's greatest work. Could it be better than Ulysses? Is that possible?

This weekend I read Katherine Mansfield's novella, "At the Bay." It was a strange work, made of loosely connected sections that felt quite slight individually, but added up to...something. Not a cohesive narrative exactly, but something that felt like an Impressionist portrait of a community. She seems to look at her subjects only sidelong, yet to come away with penetrating insight. I have never read Mansfield before, so I can't say if this is typical of her work.

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My goal for my last year of grad school is not to be frantic. To work steadily, every day, and to have that be enough. The previous two years have been characterized by stress and last minute scrambles to finish work, to grade papers, to throw words onto a page, to do what I needed to do to get through the next day. And I don't want to do that anymore.
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